“I like to call Subterranean Wavelength the hub of futuristic leftfield African electronica,” says Micr.Pluto, a producer and co-founder of the Johannesburg label that he launched in 2016 with fellow musician Tribal Rebel Ludi and arts writer Edward Kgosidintsi. At the time, Micr.Pluto and his creative circle were crafting cutting-edge music that explored the overlap between hip-hop production techniques and traditional African sounds and polyrhythms—but they quickly discovered there was an absence of local labels who could effectively release and promote their progressive style of music. Pooling their resources, the trio created Subterranean Wavelength. “The music was something we’d been doing for a while, but there wasn’t an outlet, so we decided to take [the] initiative and create that outlet in order to put out the music we wanted to,” says Micr.Pluto.
Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint acted as an early inspiration for Subterranean Wavelength, due to the way the label championed leftfield sounds while helping to nurture the vibrant Los Angeles beat scene that included Ras G and Knxwledge. “Brainfeeder is different, it’s refreshing, it’s inspiring,” says Micr.Pluto. “It’s not your everyday type of sound. It’s a diverse catalog that goes from the super spiritual jazzy stuff to broken beats—just seeing that being possible under one roof was amazing.”
Before launching Subterranean Wavelength in earnest in 2016, Micr.Pluto tested the waters with a trio of compilations designed to spotlight local artists making forward thinking beat-centric music. On the first volume, released in 2014, Micr.Pluto’s own Afrofuturist broadcast “Obligations” combines a hypnotic mid-tempo drum pattern with layers of vintage synths, while on the second installment producer Eye-On Feather’s “Mr Shadow” employs low-slung percussion and waves of buzzing ambience to support singer Olive Greylor’s husky, trip-hop-influenced vocals. Micr.Pluto says the positive reaction to the compilations, “was kind of the nod that we needed,” setting into motion the curation of a rich roster of artists that pride themselves on mixing electronic experimentation with hip-hop’s loop-based foundation while maintaining a spirited sense of South African musical heritage. “Our label has organically become somewhat of a musical incubator to the often overlooked and less explored territories of music in our scenes,” he adds. “Choosing to work with artists who aspire to constantly push the limits has resulted in our catalog being a dynamic collection of new age digital African sound.”
Here are six sure shots to get you started navigating Subterranean Wavelength’s radical discography.
Tribal Rebel Ludi
Keys To The Village
Before becoming creative allies running Subterranean Wavelength, MC Tribal Rebel Ludi and Micr.Pluto crossed paths doing cipher sessions in Johannesburg’s rap scene. Ludi’s debut 2016 EP for the label is a snappy introduction that spotlights her fluid, tricky, freestyle-honed flow and propensity for weaving together intricate stream-of-consciousness lines. “I’m a different shadow/ The sun was a little bit narrow/ Open your eyesight/ Highlights defiled sights,” she spits lithely on opening cut “Twist A Boat,” over downy keys and gently jittering drums.
“Tribal Rebel Ludi always challenges herself to push boundaries with her music and her writing,” says Micr.Pluto, who provided beats for Keys to the Village. “It’s very different to your standard rap approach. So when producing for her, I have to think in that way and give her something that would take or bring out her fullest potential in that regard.”
Martian Lo-Fi Taep
Johannesburg-based electronic composer Daev Martian’s first offering for Subterranean Wavelength is a collection of hypnotic lo-fi hip-hop with a dusty ambient patina. Opener “Bongani Fast” is built around monstrously deep low end tones and fractured synth stabs that pan from left to right; “Two Punch” is a disorienting snippet of backwards tape loops and marauding hiss; and closing cut “Swaev.” is a perky blast of jazz-influenced beat science that ends with the sound of someone pressing eject on a cassette deck.
“Daev is multi-faceted, and he wanted to put out something lo-fi and personal,” explains Micr.Pluto of the 2016 release. “It’s not personal like speaking on issues, but it’s personal in the sense that you create a project that reveals other elements of yourself that aren’t out there. And in terms of sound, it’s pretty much what our label’s about: that very gritty, downtempo, lo-fi hip-hop-based stuff.”
Future soul duo KAJAMA consists of Nandi and Nongoma Ndlovu, who are the daughters of traditional African folk musicians Themba and Bjabulile Ndlovu. KAJAMA’s 2017 Polarity Prism EP is a sleek and sophisticated blend of forward-gazing future funk and electronic production techniques, with Nandi handling the bulk of beat duties and her sister taking on lead vocals. On standout track “Ashes To Ashes,” off-kilter keys and rolling drums host digitally-tweaked voices that explore the complex nature of accepted truths. Tribal Rebel Ludi guests on “Lunar Moonlight,” a beguilingly dusky outing fueled by pulsing bass tones, oscillating synths and percussive finger snaps.
KAJAMA found their way into the Subterranean Wavelength stable after Eye-On Feather played Micr.Pluto a solo track called “Amethyst” that he’d been working on for Nandi for an as-yet-unreleased project. “I was blown away by that,” recalls Micr.Pluto. “After meeting them, I found out [the sisters] were also recording together and got super involved in that.”
Umlazi-born singer-songwriter Umaah’s matriarchal-themed 2018 SHEILA EP conveys alluring neo-soul vibes with a mystical twist. “It’s kind of like an ode to her grandma on just the basic level of it,” says Micr.Pluto, who helped produce the release alongside Eye-On Feather. “The inspiration was drawn from that and the relationship [they shared], and trying to bring out what she’s gained from her [grandma] and learned from her over the years. It was a spiritual experience for both of us.”
Umaah’s folkloric lyrics and earthy vocals are paired here with drum machine-centric production. Introductory track “Baptist” employs the juxtaposition of rugged drums and feathery keys to back Umaah singing about not being afraid to journey into “the untold” in a bid to “live life bold;” the hushed title track brims with naturalistic imagery; and closing song “Hover” incorporates backwards tape loops and is embellished by a guest rap from Tribal Rebel Ludi that strives to seek sanctuary in “solitude, finding home.”
When Micr.Pluto originally started producing beats, he dug into his father’s collection of jazz records and began playing around with the entry-level music production software eJay. “I started going through the vinyl stash and went on for two whole weeks over a school holiday period, literally eating by the computer and fully getting obsessed with creating music,” he says.
Since progressing from those initial jazz-based loop experiments, Micr.Pluto has branched out to develop a production style that pairs deep, quivering bass lines with metallic swathes of synths. “My early stuff was very boom-bappy and fundamentally hip-hop, but it’s become more intricate in every sense, and more complex,” he says. Sonic Atlas showcases Micr.Pluto’s dexterity in compelling fashion: “Metanoia” is a modern electro-soul ballad that subtly infuses Robin Fassie-Kock’s muted trumpet into the mix; “Crimson Dust” gradually amplifies into a high-octane explosion of hyper speed hi-hats and pounding kicks; and closer “Run The Block” is all bass-swaddled low end brawn and stripped-down menace, complete with sparky guest verbals from Raheem Kemet that flip skateboarding references into rap brags.
Deep Dive Set
“Damola is one of the best MCs I personally know—he sounds New York influenced, but with an African twist,” says Micr.Pluto, describing the Nigerian MC who’s half of experimental hip-hop folk duo Deep Dive Set with Eye-On Feather. “Damola is a really smart guy, so I think his writing… is very intellectual and well thought out and very leftfield,” he adds.
On 2020’s vital Nose Dive, Damola relays his verses with the cool swing of ’90s jazz rap trailblazers Digable Planets. The MC’s prescient words are backed by a patchwork of Eye-On Feather’s intricately-layered beats, which draw from West African polyrhythms. As a gateway to the project, head to key cut “Osogbo,” which transforms from an intro of stripped-down shuffling percussion and Damola’s ad libs into a grand lyrical diatribe that takes aim at neocolonialism and dystopian human engineering experiments. Ending the heady EP on a poignant and hopeful note, “Resolution” co-stars singer Zetina Mosia contributing guest vocals that link the trauma of the past to brighter visions of the future in a fashion that represents the entire Subterranean Wavelength mission: “In the meantime, let’s find a resolution/ In the meantime, a place to find our home/ In the meantime, let’s get back to the start.”